Joyce’s Story: Cochlear implants let Joyce to hear her husband’s voice again

JoyceAfter Joyce Saunders’ hearing was partially restored, the small, often ignored, sounds of life seemed like minor miracles.

“I was pulling weeds in the flower bed. Do you realize the sound they make being ripped out of the ground, the dirt letting go?” Joyce says. “I noticed the noise of plastic wrapping coming off a box. And I could hear myself laugh again. I never really paid attention to my laugh.”

Joyce began to lose her hearing at midlife from a degenerative condition that ran in her family. She had been 95 percent deaf for nearly 25 years before receiving a cochlear implant this summer. Often called “the bionic ear,” the device can miraculously restore a sense of sound to the profoundly deaf.

Within five days of her surgery at West Chester Hospital, Joyce’s implant was turned on and she began to process speech again for the first time in decades. “It is unbelievable. It is very clean and clear,” she says one month after the implant was placed.

“We have been inserting cochlear implants for 25 years now in Cincinnati which is not widely known,” states Ravi N. Samy, MD, an ear nose and throat specialist at West Chester Hospital who implanted Joyce’s device. He serves as director of the cochlear implant program at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

The cochlear implant consists of a small external device that sits discreetly behind the ear and contains a microphone and the software “brains” of the unit. An implanted electrode sends the speech impulses directly to the brain’s auditory nerve. It is very different from a hearing aid, which is simply an amplification system. The cochlear implant, in a sense, wires the brain for sound, bypassing the damaged portions of the ear directly and stimulating the auditory nerve.

“Patients describe it as an electronic or robotic sound at first,” says Lisa Houston, AuD, audiologist and cochlear implant coordinator for UC Health. “Eventually, as the brain adapts to the sounds, it turns into clearer speech and environmental sounds.”

Some retraining of the brain’s auditory functions is expected, says Dr. Samy. “If you have a hip replacement, you work with a physical therapist. It is the same with our cochlear patients – things will sound a little strange at first; however, the brain adapts to it.”

Indeed, the results can be miraculous for people like Joyce who have been deaf for decades, or when the device is turned on for young children who hear their parents’ voices for the first time.

“When you turn the implant on and see the person’s reaction, it is pretty amazing,” Dr. Samy says. “Tears come to our eyes.”

“I am lucky enough to see the restoration of quality of life,” Dr. Houston says. “I see people interact with family and loved ones again and return to a job without fear or reservations. Having hearing restored can profoundly change people and they appreciate what they have been missing.”

Dr. Samy has implanted the device in a wide array of patients, ranging from those who have become deaf due to a traumatic injury, to hearing loss resulting from chemotherapy or other medicines. He has placed implants in a one-year-old child and a 92-year-old woman.

Joyce, who has the implant in one ear, hopes to have one placed in her other ear later this year. In the meantime, she is truly rediscovering the meaningful things she has missed for nearly 25 years.

“I can hear myself chew crispy foods,” she says with a laugh. “I missed music and going to see plays the most. And being able to talk with my husband after the lights were turned off.”

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